Have you ever written down a dream haphazardly, not necessarily believing that it would come true, but still, if the opportunity would happen to drift past you one day, you would drop everything in order to touch your original dream. As some of you know, I, Heather, had the incredible opportunity to climb Mt Kilimanjaro in March. I had written down this dream 17 years ago in my journal. But, when I penned it, it was a selfish ambition. I was struggling with wanderlust and the desire to escape my current life circumstance. These days, I still visit the gates of wanderlust city, but am smack dab in the middle of an adventure with Jesus, so my minutes at that gate are fewer and further between than they used to be.
Climbing Kili with 5 other leaders and 16 senior school students from HOPAC was better than I could have ever imagined going at it alone. Relationships take shape more quickly when you are thrown into a situation where you are all striving to accomplish an identical goal and traveling on the same path toward that aspiration, no matter what age group you fall into at that moment.
Each day we would walk on, shortening the distance between us and the peak and little by little creating connections between each member of our expedition. I would often picture each of us as sheep on a mountain and wondered if the Sheppard was calling to the lost members of His flock as loudly as He was calling to me, one that had already been found years before. The journey was more splendid than I could have imagined, walking each day into a new ecosystem, each day watching God’s creative hand at work with new colors, creatures and landscapes.
On Sunday we walked through a humid, green maze of rainforest. On Monday we made our way through pine and heather, which opened up to rolling hills of long grasses. On Tuesday we continued trekking upwards for a couple of hours only for acclimation purposes, before heading back to the huts. On Wednesday it was a desolate, yet beautiful high alpine desert. Our breath became more labored, the higher we climbed, as oxygen was less and less.
We arrived at Kibo huts which sit just at the base of the final climb up. We were tired, somewhat breathless, and some of us were beginning to feel the strains of altitude sickness. We ate soup, sang a few songs and prayed fervently about the climb that was waiting on just the other side of our three hours of sleep. We hunkered down for those precious moments of shut eye.
We awoke at 11:00pm and began our summit at midnight. About 15 minutes into the start of this grueling night, it began to snow, gently at first, but picked up to an unrelenting downpour as the minutes turned to hours. The final climb was supposed to last a total of about seven hours, 5 hours to Gilman’s Point and then another push to Uhuru Peak. Many times, we were left standing as guides traded places in order to take people down that could not make it any further. Many became sick, but would empty their stomachs and continue on for a few more steps before retching again off to the side. I wish I could say I was spared of that, but I was not. The sun began to rise behind us and finally the head lamps could be extinguished, but the snow was not. We slowly clamored onward, one small step after the other. Our original party of 8 was down to 5 and we were on our fourth guide. We were just below Gilman’s Point, when I made one of those “big girl” decisions.
One of my students could not go on, several times in the past hour, she had fallen asleep while walking. She was so determined and kept asking, “Will I still get a certificate if I turn around here?” The guide said, he would see what he could do and my student finally gave into the fact that the summit would not be hers to conquer today. The guide told her to turn and go back while we continue to climb on. My own mind was racing, “Could I continue on, can she make it down the mountain on her own…?” Those thoughts were brief as I knew why I had come on the journey. I turned with her and we began to descend together. She was moving so slowly down the frozen side of the mountain. I attempted to show her how to “ski-jump” but she stood motionless and then would stumble through a few steps. I continued to encourage her from below and watched as she made half-hearted attempts to come down. I began to descend more rapidly, as the only hope for her was to find help, some other guides that could assist her down the mountain. I continued down for about 15 minutes, looking up and back every minute to make sure my student was still in sight. I came to a break in the path and could see that their were three guides ahead, waiting for people to come down, ready to assist. I increased my speed and upon reaching them I shared that “my student needed help, she was not able to make it down, please hurry to her, she is just there.” I turned and pointed to her, so small up on the face of the mountain. They immediately jumped into action and made there way to her and encouraged me to continue my way down to the hut.
I continued on my own, at a slower pace, relieved that help was there. I took a few steps and then emptied my stomach, finally allowing how terrible I actually felt to take hold. I meandered down the wide switchbacks, stopping to take in this other world I was in on the side of the tallest place in Africa. Stunning, tranquil, relentless.
I arrived back at Kibo Huts at about 7:30, my student just ahead of me, on the back of one of the guides. We were greeted by one of the other leaders. She helped peel off layers and we climbed into our bunks with plastic baggies. My body was done and nausea was powerfully making each moment feel pretty terrible. The other leader packed our things as we rested and a couple hours later we began our descent to the huts 4km below that promised less altitude sickness.
We arrived in three separate groups and shared a meal together before turning in for the night, this being the very place where beautiful conversations often unfolded or parts of our own stories were shared, breaking down barriers that once stood in the room as each person there began to realize that there were similarities between them that had not been seen before. Friday was spent walking down briskly what we had spent the past four day climbing up. We had a new appreciation for the mountain, for each other, and for some, maybe even a better understanding of how faith works when we come face to face with situations that feel impossible are in fact only something that we need to walk through in order to be drawn closer to the things that really matter on both sides of eternity, relationships with others and with our Creator.